flébil

Spanish flébil is a literary word that means the same as its Latin source flēbilis lamentable, deplorable, mournful,’ which had come from the verb flēre ‘to weep.’ If no English relative comes to mind, it’s in part because the first l dropped out of flēbilis as the adjective evolved into the Old French feble that passed into English and has taken on the modern form feeble. Note that the shift in meaning is another reason English-speaking students of Latin wouldn’t make a connection to an English descendant of flēbilis. Once we accept feeble, we can pretty easily see that it has a doublet, foible. That’s the form that made it into early modern French but is now obsolete in that language. What had started out as an adjective came to be used as a noun to designate ‘the weaker part of a sword blade.’ Semantic expansion led to the modern sense ‘a minor weakness or peculiarity in someone’s character or behavior.’ Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gave this definition: “A particular moral weakness; a failing. When we speak of a man’s foible in the singular, which is also called his weak side, we refer to a predominant failing. We use also the plural, foibles, to denote moral failings or defects. It is wise in every man to know his own foibles.”

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

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allow

The English verb allow is unusual in that it comes from the merging of two verbs in Old French, neither of which meant ‘allow.’ One source was Old French alouer, which developed from Latin allaudāre, a compound of the laudāre that meant ‘to praise’ and that English has borrowed as laud. Latin laudāre evolved naturally in Spanish to loar.

The other contributor to Old French alouer was the Medieval Latin verb allocāre, which meant ‘to assign,’ and which English has acquired as allocate. The Latin verb was based on the noun locus ‘place,’ which served as the root for Spanish lugar.

Putting those two tracks together: somehow the notions of assigning and praising led in the Middle Ages to the sense of permitting that English allow took on and has retained.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Today is Easter

Today is Easter. Foreign students of English may wonder, as native speakers rarely seem to, whether there’s a connection between Easter and east. There is. Modern English east is descended from the identically spelled Old English east. (The word had two syllables, e-ast. The vowels were pronounced as in Spanish, and the first vowel was long, meaning that it was held for a longer time than the second vowel.) Old English east developed from the Indo-European root *aus- ‘to shine,’ so that in etymological terms east is the direction from which the sun shines forth at dawn.

English Easter [Sun]day traces back to Old English Easterdæg. The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica explained the first part of that compound (which was pronounced E-ast-er or E-ast-re, with the first vowel long): “The name Easter (Ger. Ostern), like the names of the days of the week, is a survival from the old Teutonic [i.e. Germanic] mythology. According to Bede (De Temp. Rat. c. xv.) it is derived from Eostre, or Ostdra, the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, to whom the month answering to our April, and called Eostur-monath, was dedicated. This month, Bede says, was the same as the mensis paschalis, ‘when the old festival was observed with the gladness of a new solemnity.'” We can add that Anglo-Saxon Easter (or Eastre or Eostre or Ostdra) probably arose as a goddess of the dawn that brightens the eastern [from Old English easterne] horizon at the beginning of each day; and that the spring, of which Easter was a goddess, is the season in which the amount of sunshine gradually increases. Spring is metaphorically the dawning of the new year.

English east and the synonymous Spanish este are clearly related, but only scholars are likely to know that Spanish took este (originally leste, with the definite article attached, as still in Portuguese) from French est, and that French est had come from Middle English est. It’s curious that the word started out as east in Old English, became est in Middle English, and is now back to east (though with a different pronunciation). It’s also curious that both French and Spanish should have borrowed the word, directly or indirectly, from English.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

trabeate

Someone who encounters the unfamiliar English adjective trabeate (or trabeated) and looks it up at vocabulary.com finds as a first definition ‘not arcuate.’ Hmm. Fortunately the dictionary goes on to explain its explanation: ‘having straight horizontal beams or lintels (rather than arches).’ With that clarification, we recognize the arc in arcuate, but what about the trab in trabeate? That turns out to come from the Latin noun trabs, with genitive trabis, meaning ‘beam, timber.’ Latin trabs gave rise to Old French trave, which English has adopted as an architectural term meaning ‘crossbeam’ or ‘a portion of a construction made with crossbeams.’ Another architectural term is architrave (Spanish arquitrabe), which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as ‘the lowermost part of an entablature in classical architecture, resting directly on top of the columns. Also called epistyle.’

People in Roman times used beams not only as supports but also as obstacles, for example to secure the doors of buildings. Latin trabs evolved to Spanish traba, which has lost the literal and constructive senses and retained the ones pertaining to blocking and constraining. A traba is an ‘obstacle, hindrance, hobble.’ Trabas are ‘shackles.’ The derived verb trabar has meanings that include ‘to hinder, obstruct, bar, fasten, hobble, tie, hold shut,’ and even ‘wedge open.’ More constructively, a trabazón is an ‘assembly, link, joining, connection’; with regard to physical substances it means ‘consistency, coherence.’

If we go back well beyond Latin trabs, we find that the underlying Indo-European root is *treb-, which meant ‘dwelling.’ From that root came native English thorp, which designates ‘a small village.’ Though the word is archaic in its own right, it persists as the final element in many English place names. From thorp‘s Afrikaans cognate South African English has acquired the synonymous dorp. We also recognize the German cognate in place names like Düsseldorf.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

rival

The word rival, spelled the same in Spanish and English but of course pronounced differently, has an etymology that few people would guess. It comes from the Latin adjective rīvālis, which referred to two people who use the same rīvus, i.e. the same stream. Just goes to show that today’s fights over water rights are nothing new. And just because Latin rīvus meant ‘stream,’ we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that English river comes from the same source. It doesn’t, and therefore neither does the Spanish cognate ribera. It’s just a coincidence that Latin rīpa, ultimately the source of river and ribera, happened to mean ‘river bank.’ From Latin rīpa came the adjective rīpārius ‘having to do with a river bank,’ whose feminine form *rīpāria began to function as a noun in Vulgar Latin. Spanish ribera preserves the original sense of the river bank. In French rivière and English river, however, semantic drift has carried the meaning out into the water.

Coming back to the Latin rīvus that meant ‘stream,’ we’ll note that the derived verb derivar/derive has the literal sense ‘to flow from.’ The underlying Indo-European root *rei-, which meant ‘to flow’ and ‘to run,’ is the source of native English run.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Not all that glitters is gold

In a recent comment on my other blog, Jim at How I See It asked about “the relationship of the words oro, ore, oriole, orange, aura, and the gold symbol Au.” Etymologically, it makes sense to take the last first, because chemistry uses the symbol Au as an abbreviation of the Latin noun for ‘gold,’ aurum; that’s the predecessor of Spanish oro, the first word in the list. Oriole is also related. English acquired it from Old French, where it developed from Latin aureolus, a diminutive of aureus, the adjective corresponding to aurum; that makes an oriole ‘a golden [bird].’ Latin aureus is the obvious source of Spanish áureo. It’s the less obvious source of öre, a Swedish unit of currency that’s 1/100 of a krona.

The fact that oriole sounds a lot like Oreo, the familiar cookie, made me wonder if there’s a connection. An article at thoughtco.com has this to say:

So where did the name “Oreo” come from? The people at Nabisco aren’t quite sure. Some believe that the cookie’s name was taken from the French word for gold, “or” (the main color on early Oreo packages).

Others claim the name stemmed from the shape of a hill-shaped test version; thus naming the cookie in Greek for mountain, “oreo.”

Still others believe the name is a combination of taking the “re” from “cream” and placing it between the two “o”s in “chocolate” – making “o-re-o.”

And still, others believe that the cookie was named Oreo because it was short and easy to pronounce.

Or, says snarky me, maybe it’s called Oreo because the name comes from explanation 1 or 2 or 3 or 4.

Of the remaining three words in the original query, none are related to each other or to gold. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, ore developed from a cross between “Old English ōra and Old English ār, brass, copper, bronze.” English orange and the Spanish cognate naranja are ultimately of Dravidian origin; you can read the word’s interesting history here. As for aura, it goes back to Greek aurā, which meant ‘breath.’ That’s still a primary sense in Spanish. From it came the extended meaning ‘slight breeze,’ which is a poetic sense in Spanish and used to be a meaning of the word in English as well.

In closing, let me point out the wording of this post’s title, which is logically correct. The commonly heard “all that glitters isn’t gold” logically means that every glittering thing isn’t gold, which is obviously not true. My version bears the indisputable aura of reason.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

asurar

I assure you there’s no connection between Spanish asurar and English assure. When I recently encountered asurar for the first time, my mind leapt to make that connection, even though I knew assure and sure came into English from French, where those words had followed a phonological development Spanish didn’t share. Not even knowing the meaning of asurar when I came across it, I turned to the DRAE, where I learned that it occurs primarily in cooking and agriculture. In cooking, this transitive verb means ‘to burn,’ as when cooking with insufficient water burns the food in a pot on the stove. In agriculture, the ‘burning, parching’ is what the sun does to crops that don’t get enough water.

The DRAE traces asurar back to the Latin noun arsūra, whose first r, later lost in Spanish, gives English speakers a clue to a connection. According to the DRAE, Latin arsūra meant ‘heat, burning.’ I couldn’t verify the existence of such a Latin noun, even in my large Latin dictionary. Hmm. In any case, the connection still holds, because the Latin verb ārdēre, which meant ‘to burn,’ had ārsura as its feminine future participle. Late Latin created the noun ārsiō, with stem ārsiōn-, which led, via Anglo Norman, to the English word arson. The classical Latin verb ārdēre has given Spanish arder ‘to burn,’ from whose old present participle Spanish has the adjective ardiente. Paralleling that, English has ardent, from the Latin present participle. Spanish also has the interesting compound aguardiente, literally ‘burning water,’ but figuratively and actually ‘liquor’ in general and ‘brandy’ in particular.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

Another savory etymology

When Jim at How I See It recently requested an article about the origin of savory, I initially thought he meant the herb, rather than the adjective meaning ‘tasty, flavorful.’ As the previous post dealt with that savory, it seems appropriate to look into the other one. When I delved into the origin of the English noun, I found that it began as Latin saturēia and evolved to Old French sarree. Middle English borrowed that as saverey, which has changed hardly at all on its way to modern English savory. Armed with that knowledge, I thought I might not be able to continue with an article for this column because when I looked up the Spanish name for the herb and found it to be ajedrea, a connection to the English word didn’t seem likely. If anything, ajedrea struck me as coming from Arabic (compare ajedrez). I was right about the Arabic origin: the DRAE traces ajedrea to the Hispanic Arabic forms aššaṭríyya and aššiṭríyya. It turns out, though, that the Arabs had originally taken their word from Latin saturēia, so savory and ajedrea really are cognates, even if sound changes in both lines of development have obscured the relationship.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

A savory etymology

Jim at How I See It recently requested a post about the origin of savory. I was unsure which of the two unrelated English words savory he meant, so I asked. He confirmed that he meant the word that designates one of the subsenses of taste. Western science has only recently added savory—known in Japanese as umami—to the subsenses of sweet, bitter, sour, and salty.* As salty is the English adjective formed from salt, so savory is the adjective made from savor. Here are the definitions of savor given in the grand 1913 Webster’s:

1. That property of a thing which affects the organs of taste or smell; taste and odor; flavor; relish; scent; as, the savor of an orange or a rose; an ill savor. “I smell sweet savors and I feel soft things.” — Shak[espeare].
2. Hence, specific flavor or quality; characteristic property; distinctive temper, tinge, taint, and the like. “Why is not my life a continual joy, and the savor of heaven perpetually upon my spirit? ” — Baxter.
3. Sense of smell; power to scent, or trace by scent.
4. Pleasure; delight; attractiveness. “She shall no savor have therein but lite.” — Chaucer.

Middle English borrowed savour (which is still the British spelling) from Old French, where it had evolved from the synonymous Latin noun sapor that we recognize as the ancestor of the little-changed Spanish sabor ‘taste, flavor.’ Latin sapor came from the root found also in the verb sapere, which meant ‘to taste’ and which had developed from the Indo-European root *sep- ‘to taste, to perceive.’ Even in Roman times, based on the notion that tasting something is one way to learn about it, the Latin verb sapere had added the meanings ‘to have sense or discernment; to be sensible, discreet, prudent, wise,’ and then more generally ‘to know.’ That, of course, is the primary meaning of the important Spanish verb saber.

Corresponding to savory as an English name for the recently accepted fifth subsense of taste, Spanish says sabroso; both languages also use Japanese umami. Curiously, the DRAE gives a colloquial sense of sabroso as ‘ligerament salado,’ which is to say ‘lightly salted.’ I suspect that that meaning developed before the acceptance in the West of umami as a fifth subsense of taste. English has extended the sense of savory to ‘morally exemplary.’ Similarly, its negative, unsavory, has both literal and moral senses.


* For more on that, and to learn about other candidates for subsenses of taste, you’re welcome to read a Live Science article.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

bajada

Last week in a blog post about rocks on the coast of Cornwall I came across the word bajada. I’d never seen it used in English, so I checked and found that sure enough, some English dictionaries do include it. For example, dictionary.com, based on the Random House Dictionary, defines the term as ‘an alluvial plain formed at the base of a mountain by the coalescing of several alluvial fans.’ That dictionary even gives a good etymology: “1865-70, Americanism; < Spanish: slope, swoop, orig. feminine past participle of bajar to descend < Vulgar Latin *bassiāre, derivative of Late Latin bassus short, low. The adjective bassus led not only to Spanish bajo but also, via Old French, to English base in the senses ‘of low morals; of low quality.’ In addition, Late Latin bassus is the source of the English bass that means ‘having a low pitch or deep tone.’ A conjecture basing the English and Spanish noun base ‘the lowest part’ on the same Late Latin bassus turns out to be false; that base goes back to Greek basis.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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